In Practice Q&A: Jaamil Olawale Kosoko

Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

Nov 05, 2020

Artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko stands on a stage, wearing sunglasses, a long Afro wig and a sequined robe and pants, raising his hands in the air, with a giant image of a disco ball in the background

Below, enjoy the complete Q&A with Wexner Center Artist Residency Award recipient Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, which was excerpted for the first edition of the new Wex publication In Practice. The interdisciplinary artist will participate in outreach activities on and off the Ohio State campus this fall before debuting the next iteration of his multi-pronged work Chameleon in March 2021. Watch this site for details; due to COVID-19 dates are subject to change.

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” wrote Indian author Arundhati Roy in an April column for the Financial Times. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

The quote is included in Chameleon: A Syllabus for Survival, an online resource to help guide us through the shedding of the world that existed before coronavirus toward a new vision of society that’s kinder, more compassionate, and more equitable. The syllabus was produced by New York’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) with multidisciplinary artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko in conjunction with Chameleon (The Living Installments), a program of livestreamed public engagement. That was held in April 2020 in lieu of the premiere of Kosoko’s performance work Chameleon: A Biomythography, which was scheduled to debut at EMPAC earlier that month, before the original run became a pandemic casualty.

The Chameleon project considers a future of reimagined performative conventions and greater inclusivity, offering myriad ways to experience Blackness and queerness in environments where white, cisgender voices have historically dominated. Chameleon has also taken the form of a podcast, American Chameleon, which debuted in November 2019. And in the coming months, Wex audiences will be able to experience the project through a wide range of programming that reflects the center’s multidisciplinary focus: curatorial projects, new video works, and conversations between Kosoko and the community. Kosoko’s efforts are being supported by a Wexner Center Artist Residency Award, chosen annually by the center’s director and curators to facilitate the creation of new work on-site.

From his home in Brooklyn, Kosoko spoke with us recently about Chameleon, the emotional process of working through the pandemic, and his hopes for connecting with audiences through the Wex. Performing Arts Director Lane Czaplinski also joined the call and he chimes in where noted.

How did Lane initially approach you about the Artist Residency Award, and was there any initial discussion between the two of you about parameters?

That's a good question. I can't say I have the clearest memory. I feel like it was very much a process, or progress of our working relationship over time. That was how I interpreted it. It felt like it grew very naturally out of conversations we were having and the way our thinking was aligning. But Lane might have another take on that.

Lane Czaplinski: I agree. I think when we presented Séancers, I saw that as the beginning of a relationship with Jaamil. In terms of extending that,  getting into his next body of work, which he can describe more articulately than I can, I saw the Residency Award as a way of not just investing in this project, but really investing in Jaamil, in a way that was asking Jaamil to animate the interdisciplinarity of the Wexner Center and also to use his leadership and his perspective to basically work on our path. 

Jaamil, you've already had to do some different thinking about Chameleon and your practice in relation to the biomythography piece, which had to be postponed. I was listening to your podcast conversation with Miguel Gutierrez and the two of you talking about getting away from goal-oriented practice. It seems like that's ultimately what you're doing and there's a tremendous amount of freedom in that, but also a lot of uncertainty. Once you were faced with that challenge, how did you approach it?

For me, it's really important to allow myself to get lost, and create a process, a praxis. It's integral and interestingly enough, it wasn't until the onset of this pandemic that I feel like a kind of clarity arrived in a lot of ways, which really sort of forced a pivot in my process, but one that I had already been trying to execute. 

I like to say that I work as sort of a social-creative archivist, and it just so happens that the kind of realm that has been the most appreciative and excited about my creative proposal as of late has been the experimental theater circuit. But never did I envision myself only as a theater practitioner or choreographer in that more traditional sense. My spirit, my process, my thinking is far too expansive for such labels, I guess (laughs). So Chameleon essentially became a way for me to, with intention, break out of this mold that had begun to be crafted around me, this sort of exoskeleton that I didn't feel spiritually aligned with. The process of Chameleon allowed me to really reconsider how I wanted to position my work and practice in the public sphere, the kind of institutions and people that I want to align with and connect with. It allowed me a lot of space and possibility to begin executing work that feels more integral to my thinking and my spirit, really.

As a result, now the work is existing more in the digital sphere—and again, a lot of folks I've been talking to of late mention this idea of the pivot and the rush to get work online, and that was never the issue for me, this idea of translating. I had already been executing my work in the digital sphere and in the online arena as a part of my practice, but people weren't seeing it, not explicitly. Now that there's this change in optics and the way in which we're observing the world and engaging with each other, there seems to be a way in which what I'm doing has kind of risen through the cracks of that mold. It's allowing itself to be seen and witnessed in a lot of different contexts, whether it be poetry, memoir, visual art, multimedia forms, more conceptual performance experimentation, film, video. This might sound some kind of way, but the culture is finally able to really experience it and accept it maybe.

So it seems like the world has caught up to you, for better or worse.

C'est la vie.

The breadth of work you’ll be doing with the Wex includes film, performance, education, and curatorial. How have these different paths come together for you in the project?

I don't think it’s all that unique—maybe it’s more unique than I give it credit for—but I began my entrée into performance and art making through language and education. I went from studying and writing poetry as a teen to teaching it to other young people as a first-year college student. And quite naturally when I [was in] high school, poetry, film, photography—these things were in conversation. With university came more work in art history and film and video, and making performance for film and video, and then from there working in arts administration, eventually getting a degree in curatorial practice from Wesleyan, and very much working as an artist but kind of an undercover artist. I was a producer and arts manager for several years. So creatively, there have been these parallels, but at any given moment my creative work and process were always incubating. I was taking in a lot of different ways of thinking about being inside of performance. I knew I wanted to embed my life inside a world of art and art making; that has always been clear for me. I didn’t always know what the inroads would be. There’s this constant pivoting that has had to occur for me to understand the best way I can fit into any creative circumstance. And so now, with this opportunity to work with the Wexner, it's really a way in which this vast array, this expansive menu can really come into focus and present itself in all of these myriad ways.

Your most recent visit to Columbus was to work with curator Jennifer Lange and editor Alexis McCrimmon in the Film/Video Studio. Tell us about the experience.

I came in November for the first of a series of film/video residency visits to Columbus. It's been amazing to return. When you find an editor that you really jive with, it's a very specific, unique relationship. I mean, they are very much performing as chameleons because they're being asked to adapt to so many different styles and concerns and thematics. With Chameleon, I was so thrilled that Alexis was on the project because we talk about themes of Blackness, feminism, and queerness, and additional elements—ritual, spirituality—come into the conversation through the process of editing alongside each other. There's something really special that arose out of that partnership just because we had so much in common and were thinking about a lot of things subtextually. Working on this project became an opportunity for some of that thinking to be made visible.

I'm really excited and proud of the project and it's the first of what I think will be at least a couple of projects that will happen. I reached out to Jennifer about another project that still considers thinking about the [Studio] archive in a deep way, specifically queer archives and themes of what's embellished, what's fantasized, what's evidenced, all these questions that we're considering as we delve into this next project. But Chameleon specifically, working with Alexis and also with the Wexner as a whole, I was able to invite a number of folks to come into the studio to give feedback. I would've loved to do another showing before we launch it but that didn't happen because the world cracked.

I'm proud of what we were able to create and it feels really honest. It’s the kind of project that I’ve been wanting to share and propose for a while; I just hadn’t had all the resources aligned. [The production support] created the perfect equation to create this work, and the perfect timing. It's all about “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” this essay by Audre Lorde. But she talks about the erotic as a way of connecting to one's own excellence and this connection to the environment and the earth that we all need to understand—intimacy with each other but also with the planet. There’s so much of the project that’s thinking about memory, what it means to be existing in this current COVID reality. A lot of things about aloneness, becoming enchanted with one’s own magic as a way to [make a] portal through time and space. There’s this whole motif of a gas mask—and this was filmed before COVID. The current context in which the work asks to be witnessed is particularly urgent (and that’s a relief).

And honestly, if I may, I just feel like the work that I'm making now, it's just executed in a way that feels right for the way in which I want to be positioning my thinking. I never was super excited about being on a plane every week. That just didn't make much sense to me, but I was going along with this current because it seemed to be what was asked of me. But the way the work is positioned now, and the way in which I'm able to work and rest, and just have a little bit more autonomy over how I spend my time and who I'm in conversation with, it makes a lot more sense for me now.

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko hanging upside down, bare chested, arms crossed, wearing a bejeweled gas mask on a darkened stage

Images courtesy of EMPAC

How is listening—on your part but also on the part of the audience—informing the shape of your work?

I think so much of the project is an invitation to listen, an invitation into a way in which I think and put ideas and questions together. But there’s also a deep need to listen and to hear, but to do it in a way that feels holistic, that is asking for us to slow down and attempt to comprehend what’s happening inside of us, what’s happening externally, and what our role is as bodies in the in-between, collaboratively, to build the kind of world we want to exist in.

I think with Chameleon, there’s a request for one to sort of sink in and to engage in that sort of intimacy. I’ve been using the words “primary partnership,” but when I say that I mean, what does it mean to be in conversation with one’s own being as a primary partner? You are your primary partner. Check in often [laughs]. Listen. What’s coming up for you? What’s not coming up for you? And allow that to be the beginning of that road map that I think we’re all having to figure out for ourselves, particularly in this moment. It’s super complex. There is no clear exit, no clear ending, and so this project is really asking us to radically consider the present, so that we can do that work of freeing the foreclosed futures that we can’t even imagine for ourselves until we take a moment to stop and listen, and do that deep spiritual work that’s needed. I’m hoping the project is proposing that listening, but then I’m also hoping it can serve as a kind of blueprint as well.

To be completely honest, COVID happened and I went through what some might call a nervous breakdown, but I call it a nervous breakthrough. It’s going to get a little esoteric here: an immense download occurred for me at that time and it forced me to recalibrate the frequency at which I was operating, and to just reconnect with the universe, with spirit, with myself. I was forced rapidly into this, all the while trying to create a new pathway for working and collaborating, a practice that [normally] may have taken a couple years to perfect. It’s far from perfect now, but the amount of work that occurred in that two to three-week period, for me, would take easily a year. Time was condensed and had to be reimagined, and then came a whole new approach to collaborating and working with people across digital platforms and proximity. And needless to remind you, everyone was feeling a deep shock and grief. It was a very strange place to be making work from, but nonetheless it felt like it needed to happen.

I hope that somewhere in this way of working [are] other pathways and possibilities for artists and institutions to just step up and get to work. This portal—this pandemic portal, if you will—is asking us to really observe our power. And to not only observe it, but to activate it globally and personally, that sort of macro/micro proposal.

I know exactly what you’re saying, feeling this atmosphere of people being stunned, then eventually they started to shake out of it. In some ways the murder of George Floyd also snapped people back into thinking about making and speaking.

Just moving and activating, because nothing can happen when energy is stagnant and stifled. That really scared me because I was under the impression, are people gonna sit stunned until November? What is going to happen here? And so I feel moved again by the possibility. Who knows what’s going to happen, but at least there’s a possibility now that I don’t think was there before.

You’ve talked elsewhere about the word “chameleon” and having to do the work of blending in in a variety of ways, such as code switching. This project isn’t necessarily about blending; it claims space for underrepresented perspectives across disciplines and in institutional settings. Has that been a challenge to navigate?

There’s the strange way in which the chameleon hides in plain sight—a way in which the species is very advanced, I guess. And not for any other reason than it has to be. It didn’t have an option other than to be itself, and I feel like that as a metaphor can move in so many different directions.

I’ll speak personally: I’ve had to exist inside a fugitive reality of this sort of escape without exit, and [living] inside of that escape has meant being quite public in order to be able to hide. For a long time pre-COVID, I existed with this air of, OK, Jaamil is in the world somewhere. Look at his calendar, you might have a sense of what country, maybe. And inside of that was also a strange freedom, a flow that made some sense because it allowed me opportunities to get out of the American project, which is also a kind of psychosis. It’s a very specific way of having to code and decode, and to constantly be in that embodied problem of thought. I think what you’re picking up on makes perfect sense in that there’s this constant opposition, the coding-decoding, the public-private. I like that that dialogue creates a territory of instability. It offers more possibility, honestly. That instability is an ingredient that forces me to continuously be in conversation with other ways of progressing, moving forward, of creating futures and hopefully inviting folks into that nascent space.

Anything else you’d like to add in relation to this project?

I would just encourage you to kind of… there [will be] enough in there to get lost.

That’s one of the things that’s so exciting about it, though.

Yeah, I think so. There’s the podcast, the video work, these curatorial works that are popping up, the educational component, the performative component. There are so many optics to experience and to sort of explore, and that’s really been a way I’ve always approached my creative work, creating syllabi for a project, because I know that not everyone can make it to a theater, to give an hour or hour-and-a-half of their time, and so for me it’s always made sense for me to operate in a number of different realities simultaneously. And it just so happens that now, a lot of us are having to work in a number of different realities simultaneously. It’s a strange but glorious time to be alive and I feel really grateful. 

Lane, would you like to add anything?

Just that I liked your question about listening and wanted to add, I think that not only is this an opportunity, but it’s a responsibility for the institution to listen. Just as Jaamil and Miguel were talking about going beyond the transactional natures of their processes, we’ve been looking to do that—and I think we have historically championed more than the transactional. We were having these conversations about what a deeper relationship looked like pre-12 months ago, but it becomes all the more pressing now as things have intensified. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this kind of listening and learning. We won’t get it perfect but I think everything’s on the up.